Answer – Here is a case study from our Massachusetts arborist friend Brian Thiebault about an apple tree pruning he did in Maine.
The apple trees that I referred to were in Bowdoinham, Maine. I attend college an hour north of there in Unity (at Unity College). The guy wanted them reduced to hand-picking height, and they were quite tall.
His yard comprised part of an abandoned orchard (there are a lot of them in Maine). The trees hadn’t been pruned for production in over 15 years, and were all severely crowded.
I basically cut out all but a few sucker tops to try and restore leader dominance, and prevent too much vertical competition in the future. Then, I thinned the remaining fruit-bearing branches. I pruned the trees a little later than I initially wanted (March), but the buds hadn’t started swelling yet, so it was still healthy for the tree.
This was initially more of a fun experiment, as he just wanted apples for their great qualities in making…drinks. But it turned out to be a very informative prune for me. All of my apple tree pruning had great results. I did notice, however, that the thinning could have waited a year, and that I was a little over-zealous.
Either way, the trees didn’t mind and responded wonderfully, as I’ve observed over a one-plus year period. What I have noticed, as I have done a few small commercial orchards, is that apples are VERY resilient, and love to be pruned hard.
As an example, there are even some long-forgotten stems in this guy’s yard that have managed to survive, and now, we are going to take those 50 year old trunks and start them all over again from that old wood with just a few suckers.
I would like to point out something that was mentioned in a comment about topped trees. Kind of a disclaimer for my methods. I firmly believe topping is not an acceptable practice, and that even though my methods above seem like topping, and in some cases remove more than the recommended amount of branches, it doesn’t apply in this particular case due to the fact that they will never become a safety hazard.
Topping is a concern where future structural defects due to the extreme cutting will lead to catastrophic failure in large trees. These particular apple trees are not so large as to pose a safety concern. If a branch breaks due to poor branch attachment, you lose some apples, not a life.
Restorative apple tree pruning would have never been worth it on a commercial level for an orchard. But for a guy who is willing to fool around with some old trees in his backyard as opposed to planting new ones, it makes for an excellent case study.
I reduced each of the three leaders to the healthiest horizontal branch available. With apples, it’s not about the amount of branching left, it’s about the structure of it (if you’re pruning for production, that is).
One last note: with these trees all being so close, they are most certainly root-grafted to each other. So you need to look at them all as a whole system – and the fact that some got pruned hard, while others not at all, allows the ones that didn’t get pruned to feed the ones that did.
Just think of each tree as an individual branch on a larger tree.
Thank you for posting my thoughts!